Home What Does the iPad Mean For Online Video?

What Does the iPad Mean For Online Video?

Within two years, the number of hours people spend viewing online video will easily surpass the time they spend watching television. There’s no doubt that online video has enjoyed stratospheric growth of late, but despite that success, the technical underpinning by which video is delivered into your browser hasn’t really developed much since the 1990s. Back then, watching a video on the Web meant squinting at a postage stamp-sized low-res player with very jerky video.

Nick Wilson is CTO at Break Media, an entertainment community for men. He’s spent the last two decades building products that leverage digital content and is a recognized innovator in the digital entertainment field. He’s excited about Break.com being one of the first HTML5-enabled video sites.

Fast forward ahead to 2004, when YouTube and casual gaming sites burst onto the scene and we finally had killer applications that meant one thing: To experience the new wonders of the Web, one had no choice but to download Adobe’s Flash browser plugin. After all, the two most popular browsers, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox (collectively with 80% market share), still have no native way to play a video or animation without installing Flash.

So the massive demand for video on the Web was enabled by a few de-facto standards that converged at just the right time, and was led by Adobe Flash, which is now installed on over 98% of all desktops and laptops. The trouble is that we engineers always viewed Flash as a transitionary technology: a platform that enabled a browser to do things that couldn’t be done using the archaic Internet standards of HTML and JavaScript alone.

Every transitionary technology reaches a peak (98% adoption is a pretty good peak!) and eventually declines as newer developer-friendly technologies with better standards compliance take hold. Of course, with Flash being so ubiquitous on desktops and laptops it will be years before developers ditch it all together. But the desktop isn’t where the next battle for video will be fought – rather it will be the new breed of platform and mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and set-top boxes – all of which have limited processing power and little to no ability for a user to download and install plugins like Flash.

With the newest crop of browsers, principally Apple Safari and Google Chrome (soon to be joined by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9), come a new set of capabilities based upon existing standards: HTML, JavaScript, and H.264 video playback. Using this trinity of technologies, it’s possible to engineer a completely immersive video playback experience that’s indistinguishable from a Flash-based player to the user, but is far faster and easier to develop and is supported out of the box within the browser.

The arrival of the iPad unquestionably puts the fate of online video – and the means by which it is distributed – center-stage. It’s unsurprising that Apple’s newest baby, the iPad, would follow in the footsteps of its older sibling, the iPhone, by relying on the browser to handle video rather than allowing a Flash plugin. But there’s one critical difference: The iPad allows an embedded video playback experience, so the video can appear within a normal Web page without having to go full-screen as with the iPhone.

This seemingly minor difference, coupled with Safari’s mature HTML5 implementation, means that a website can be modified to work on the iPad and can retain all of the functionality of a Flash-based player but with a developer-friendly HTML and JavaScript implementation. Provided that your videos are already encoded in H.264, modifying a video playback page to be iPad-compatible should not take more than a day or so (see the iPad screenshot above). Adding some iPad-specific features such as pinch-to-zoom with auto page rearrangement (impossible to do in Flash) take longer, but are still very straightforward to implement.

And what about the online video economy, with its Flash-based pre-roll videos and overlay advertising units? Well, with some clever coding they can work just fine on the iPad, too. Transcoding video ads into H.264 is a straightforward process, and ad units such as a “video bug” (those pop-up messages that show at the bottom of a video) can easily be reprogrammed to work in HTML5. When we combine the in-video units like preroll and video bug along with non-Flash IAB-standard ad units, there are plenty of opportunities to monetize a video view impression.

So the iPad without Flash, rather than presenting a problem for online video, presents a great opportunity to modernize the video playback experience, supporting the unique and immersive user experience that the iPhone started and the iPad will continue and enhance.

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